Wine Online: Remembering a Big Win Over Michigan

Oct. 30, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Michigan visits Kinnick Stadium this Saturday, which brings to mind other games Iowa has had with the Wolverines. One of my favorites was played 30 years ago when Kirk Ferentz was a first-year Hawkeye assistant, coaching the offensive line. He was only 25 years old, and looked even younger.

Iowa wasn’t supposed to be very good in 1981, Hayden Fry’s third year as head coach. That’s probably because the Hawkeyes hadn’t been very good since 1960, and had experienced 19 consecutive seasons without a winning record. As my good friend Jim Zabel puts it, “There were one or two bad decades in there.”

The 1981 Iowa offense was nothing special, but the defense – featuring Andre Tippett, Mark Bortz, Mel Cole, Pat Dean and Lou King – was exceptional. And in Reggie Roby, Iowa had the best punter in college football.

In recalling that season, Fry says, “I thought we would play a lot of close games, and if our offense scored enough points, we would surprise some people.”

The first surprise was a 10-7 win over Nebraska in the opener. The second came two weeks later when Iowa thumped UCLA 20-7. Two wins over Top Ten non-conference opponents gave the Hawkeyes national recognition they hadn’t received in years.

After handily winning its first two Big Ten games, Iowa traveled to No. 6 Michigan, which had won four of the past five Big Ten championships and was virtually unbeatable at home. Fry’s game plan was simple: “We were going to play error-free, ball control offense, and we were going to make Michigan start each possession a long way from the goal. Roby’s punting would be crucial, because we didn’t think Michigan could sustain long drives against our defense.”

Fry’s strategy probably didn’t surprise Bo Schembechler, the legendary Michigan coach, but he couldn’t do much about it. With a crowd of 106,000 looking on, Iowa produced enough offense to put Tom Nichol in position to kick two field goals. Michigan answered with a touchdown and the first half ended with the home team leading 7-6.

A Michigan scoring threat in the third quarter was stymied when Cole intercepted a pass in the end zone. Iowa put together a long drive that produced a third Nichol field goal and a stunning 9-7 upset, because Michigan never threatened to score again.

It was a textbook victory for Fry and his staff, and it served notice to the Big Ten that there was a new kid on the block. When the polls came out two days later it was Iowa that held the No. 6 ranking.

The Hawkeyes used that victory as a spring board to a Big Ten co-championship and berth in the Rose Bowl. More importantly, Iowa sustained that success and became the most successful football program in the Big Ten over a seven-year period, making those “bad decades” a distant memory.


Sophomore Marcus Coker’s 252 yards rushing at Minnesota marked the 14th time an Iowa player ran for more than 200 yards in a game. Iowa won 12 of those, mostly by wide margins – scores like 54-16, 68-34 and 66-0. Get the picture? When a running back piles up big yardage his team almost always controls the line of scrimmage and wins the game.

But the Hawkeyes failed to capitalize on Coker’s performance at Minnesota and lost 22-21. The only other time Iowa lost when a player ran for more than 200 yards was at Northwestern in 2005 when Albert Young ground out 202 yards in a 28-27 defeat.

Coker’s big day at Minnesota shot him to the head of the class in Big Ten rushing statistics. He is averaging 121.1 yards in all games and 147.2 in conference games, ranking him No. 1 in both categories. He is only 31 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards for the season.